Archive for A.J. Burnett
The Cubs’ new regime didn’t even give Carlos Zambrano a chance. After watching his numerous meltdowns and blowups from afar, the new Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer-led baseball operations department traded the right-hander to the Marlins yesterday. All they had to do was eat $15.5M of the $18M owed to Zambrano next year, the last one on his contract, and take back a player that was nearly non-tendered last month. Chris Volstad was so far out of Miami’s plans that they didn’t even invite him to their new jersey unveiling earlier this offseason.
The Yankees don’t have a new regime, but they are looking to move their own troubled right-hander. During the Winter Meetings we heard that they were shopping A.J. Burnett, reportedly willing to pay $8M of the $33M left on his contract. We know that amount won’t get it done, but it’s just a starting point for negotiations. A few weeks later we heard that a number of teams were mulling over the idea of trading for A.J., but so far nothing has materialized. Ken Rosenthal reported yesterday that the Pirates were one of those clubs, but ultimately everyone is asking the Yankees to basically eat everything left on Burnett’s contract. As the Zambrano trade shows, that probably what it’ll take to facilitate a deal.
In terms of performance, Burnett and Zambrano have been very, very similar over the last three seasons. The former has stayed healthier so he’s thrown 140 more innings during that time, but the latter isn’t as homer prone (0.73 HR/9 vs. 1.25). Burnett has slight edges in strikeout (7.91 K/9 and 20.0 K% vs. 7.49 and 19.1), walk (3.91 BB/9 and 10.1 BB% vs. 4.11 and 10.5), and ground ball (45.6% vs. 43.6%) rates, though Zambrano has the sexier ERA (3.99 vs. 4.79). Obviously the whole NL Central vs. AL East thing plays some part in that. The two have similar BABIPs (.299 vs. .303), xFIPs (4.19 vs. 4.27) and SIERAs (4.15 vs. 4.33) as well.
Not a whole lot differentiates the two on the field over the last three seasons, but off the field they are quite different. Zambrano is a noted hot-head, getting suspended by his team multiple times for run-ins with coaches and teammates. He even had to attend an anger management class. Burnett showed up with a black eye and punched a wall in 2010, but he’s never had any problems remotely close to what Zambrano has put the Cubs through over the last decade. That’s not enough to overcome his poor performance, but it’s definitely not negligible.
Yesterday’s Zambrano trade doesn’t make it any more likely that the Yankees will be able to move Burnett, but it might tell us a little something about what it will take to make it happen. The Cubs ate 86% of the money left on Big Z’s deal and took an out-of-favor player with a smidgen of upside in return. The Yankees would have to eat $28.4M of the $33M left on Burnett’s deal to match that percentage, which I’m guessing is beyond where they’re willing to go. There’s also the whole one year of Zambrano vs. two years of Burnett thing, and we shouldn’t discount the Ozzie Guillen factor. He and Zambrano are friends and countrymen, so I’m sure he was consulted prior to the deal. The Yankees won’t have that Guillen-like edge when trying to trade the Burnett.
Much like the Derek Lowe trade — when the Braves ate two-thirds of his salary and received a fringe low-level prospect in return — the Zambrano deal gives us an idea of what it takes to move an underperforming, overpaid player like Burnett. The Yankees will have to eat upwards of $20-25M to make it happen, getting next to nothing in return. Volstad represents the best case return, and he’s back end of the rotation fodder. Is that worth it for the Yankees? Maybe, but I’m not 100% convinced of it. Either way, I’m not betting on A.J. getting traded anytime soon.
He’s the target of constant ire, and for good reason. In the past two years A.J. Burnett has brought Yankees fans little but frustration. During that span he has amassed a 5.20 ERA, which is the second worst mark in all of baseball*. At the same time he has earned $33 million — more than all but a handful of pitchers. The separation between compensation and performances only further ignites fans. Yet despite the tension before every Burnett start and the anger following a good portion of them, I can’t bring myself to hate the contract he signed back in 2008.
*Only John Lackey, who, coincidentally, signed with the Red Sox for the same years and dollars as Burnett a year later, has fared worse (5.26 ERA).
To be sure, the contract hurts right now. The Yankees could likely get similar production from an array of pitchers in their system, for a fraction of Burnett’s costs. That Burnett money could then go to other resources. It could even go towards a better starting pitcher. There is no denying that it’s a bad contract, on account of the production they’ve received from Burnett. Even two above-average years to finish out the contract won’t make up for 2010 and 2011.
This is the risk every team takes when they sign a player to a long-term contract. The minute Burnett put his signature on that piece of paper, it was a sunk cost for the Yankees. There is no recouping that money, except in extreme cases. The Yankees knew what they were getting into when they signed Burnett, but they did it anyway. And, considering the state of the team at the time, it was probably the right move.
The need for pitching
In 2008 the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. That’s an admirably long streak, but it was still disappointing to see it come to an end. That year it seemed as though everything broke poorly for the Yankees. They started the year with two rookies in the rotation, and both performed horribly. They then turned to another rookie pitcher, who dazzled and then got hurt. Their most stable pitcher hurt himself running the bases during an interleague game. Even Andy Pettitte struggled down the stretch. The starting staff there produced a 4.58 ERA, 9th in the AL.
(Though, to be fair, their notoriously bad defense could have played a part. They finished 3rd in FIP and xFIP, so there’s a chance that the defense exacerbated an already rough situation.)
When the Yankees closed shop for the season, they completely lacked starters for 2009. Brian Cashman said that only two were guaranteed rotation spots: Joba Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang. Both, however, were coming off fairly major injuries. Wang missed the entire second half, while Chamberlain finished the year in the bullpen. So even the two penciled-in starters were far from guarantees. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy still lingered, but after 2008 it was unlikely the Yankees wanted to hand anything to either of them.
The need for pitching, then, was great. As the free agent signing period approached, Cashman said that he intended to sign two starters. CC Sabathia was obviously the main target, and after him there was a list of quality pitchers who could slot in right behind him: Burnett, Derek Lowe, and Ben Sheets. The Yankees decided that Burnett, who had flourished in the AL East in 2008, made the best target. And so they outbid the Braves for him.
The Yankees had plenty of money coming off the books that off-season. The departures of Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, and Bobby Abreu gave the Yankees plenty of payroll flexibility. Pitching was clearly the area of greatest need, and Cashman addressed that by adding the top two starters on the market. Thinking about it that way, it’s hard to complain.
Remember, the biggest criticism of Burnett’s deal wasn’t about his ability. It was about his health. He had landed on the disabled list four times in 2006 and 2007, missing 116 games for the Blue Jays. Before that he had missed considerable time with the Marlins. In fact, his only two completely healthy years were 2005 and 2008, his two contract years. Worst of all, all of his injuries were either elbow or shoulder related.
Yet in terms of performance, it was hard to argue with Burnett. He had just come off a season in which he led the AL in strikeouts. This was remarkable not only because he pitched in the AL East, but because he had to face the two toughest offenses in the division. That is, it wouldn’t be quite as remarkable for a Red Sox or Yankees pitcher to accomplish this feat, because they miss one of the two powerhouse offenses. Yet Burnett handled them with aplomb in 2008.
Going back even further, Burnett was one of the league’s more effective pitchers from 2005 through 2008. His 3.78 ERA in that span ranked 18th among all MLB starters with at least 600 IP in that span, while his FIP ranked 11th. His strikeout rate, 8.88 per nine, ranked fourth in that group. Clearly, performance issues were not at the forefront. Burnett might not have quite been a top-10 pitcher when the Yankees signed him, but he easily had the most talent of any available pitcher. That he dominated AL East opponents during his time with Toronto only helped his case.
The Yankees correctly assessed Burnett’s health condition. He’s missed almost no time for them in the last three years. What they didn’t figure on was the complete erosion of the skills that had made him so successful in the first place.
Flags fly forever
It’s one of the oldest cliches in the book, but there’s a reason for that. Without A.J. Burnett, the Yankees would have had an infinitely more difficult time winning the 2009 World Series. Derek Lowe certainly wasn’t the answer. Nor was Ben Sheets. Unless Cashman pulled off a trade, Phil Hughes would have started the season in the rotation. Who, then, would have replaced Chien-Ming Wang? Where would Burnett’s reasonable production have come from?
Is there an argument that the Yankees could have won that year without Burnett? Sure. But given a few of his postseason performances, including his infamous shutdown of the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series, it’s tough to envision them having quite the same level of success without him. Even if Burnett continues tanking, the Yankees will always have that 2009 banner flying above Yankee Stadium. That might not justify the entire contract, but it’s sure easier to swallow this way.
The Yankees had plenty of pitching needs the winter they signed Sabathia and Burnett. They went about it in typical Yankee fashion, handing out two big contracts to the two best pitchers on the market. For a year, ti worked. Burnett didn’t light the world on fire, but he provided a solid 200 innings in 2009, holding down the No. 2 spot in the rotation. That his skills have betrayed him is certainly frustrating to anyone who has watched him for the past two seasons. But looking back, it’s hard to hate that deal. It was the right move at the time, and it immediately paid off. You can ask for more, sure, but how much more?
Back in November I took a deep dive into the numbers to see whether there were any positives to be gleaned from A.J. Burnett‘s lousy 2011 season and whether we could expect at least a slightly better performance from the enigmatic righty in 2012 (assuming the Yankees don’t eat his deal and decide to make him someone else’s problem). What I found was that Burnett’s season was utterly compromised by a brutal nine-start stretch he put together during July and August — which was in large part due to the fact that he lost nearly two inches of vertical break on his curveball — and that if you removed those performances from his ledger he actually threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings. We all know baseball doesn’t work that way, but that would seem to indicate that there’s still a somewhat useful pitcher in there somewhere.
Today I wanted to examine a few key splits, in the hopes that there are some underlying trends that could bode well for A.J. going forward. For the masochists in the audience, feel free to download the spreadsheet I created which has the tOPS+ and sOPS+ data on pretty much every split you could want during the course of A.J.’s Yankee career. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on sOPS+, as in the case of a pitcher like Burnett I think we’ll get a better sense of just how effective/ineffective he’s been comparing his performances in various splits against the league instead of compared to himself.
Over the last two years, leadoff hitters, cleanup hitters and 5th-slot hitters have really given it to A.J. but good. For some reason, A.J. fared best against #2 hitters last season, and also handled them relatively well last year. While his performance against 1-2 hitters slightly worsened in 2011, his sOPS+ against 3-6 hitters was flat year-over-year and his numbers against 7-9 hitters actually improved over 2010 (although in the case of the latter, he was still only 3% better than league average). Still, none of this data is terribly optimistic.
Last year, Burnett was curiously effective with a runner on 3rd and less than two outs (53 sOPS+). He also fared well with runners on first and third (72 sOPS+). Though one would think that Burnett’s propensity for wild pitches — something that wouldn’t show up in the opposition’s cumulative OPS – likely aided the opposing team’s opportunities with runners on third. Burnett has been atrocious with a runner on 2nd these last two seasons, posting a 143 sOPS+ last year and 152 this past season. Nothing to see here.
This past season A.J. appeared to save his best pitching for when the team was trailing, with an 80 sOPS+. However, as driven painfully home by the August 3 game against the White Sox, he was inexplicably terrible when pitching with a big lead, posting an sOPS+ of 195(!) when ahead by four-plus runs.
In 2011, A.J. saved his worst pitching for the middle innings collectively, although his worst performances came in the 2nd inning of games (154 sOPS+). Burnett was great in the 3rd inning (43 sOPS+), but that was one only three innings he was better than league average in, and one of those innings — the eighth — was one he rarely even saw.
Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be anything in the underlying data that might portend a brighter future for Allan James Burnett in 2012. I’ve been hoping against hope that A.J. can return to a level of effectiveness that he last evinced in 2009, and while I’ll continue to perhaps foolishly expect better from A.J., no matter which way you slice ‘em the numbers tell a very different story.
Oh hell yes, I’d take that in heartbeat. Burnett has been awful these last two seasons, there’s no denying that, but the first eleven seasons of his career were pretty damn good. For starters, he was almost exactly one year younger than Betances is right now when he got to the big leagues, and about two months younger than Betances is right now when he stuck in the big leagues for good. There was a broken foot and an elbow injury (caused by a batted ball) mixed in, but here is what Burnett did during his pre-arbitration years (1999-2002)….
Age 22-25: 78 G 501.2 IP, 3.82 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 7.55 K/9, 4.34 BB/9, 7.4 fWAR, 6.3 bWAR
Not great, but definitely a serviceable young arm for the rotation. Burnett made four starts in 2003 before blowing out his elbow and needing Tommy John surgery, so his arbitration years (2003-2005) were impacted a great deal by injury…
Age 26-28: 56 G, 352 IP, 3.61 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 8.49 K/9, 3.45 BB/9, 8.0 fWAR, 4.9 bWAR
A.J. had 55 million reasons to leave the Marlins for the Blue Jays after the 2005 season, so for his six team controlled years, Florida got 853.2 IP of 15.4 fWAR and 11.2 bWAR pitching out of the right-hander. For comparison’s sake, Edwin Jackson has produced 14.0 fWAR and 10.7 bWAR during those same six years of his career, but in 225.1 more innings. Those first six years are the ones you have to focus on when talking about prospects, because they aren’t guaranteed to remain with the team beyond that point. For the sake of completeness, here is what Burnett did from 2006-2009, before his last two disaster years…
Age 29-32: 114 G, 729.2 IP, 3.97 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 8.88 K/9, 3.55 BB/9, 14.9 fWAR, 10.4 bWAR
Betances and Burnett are similar in that they are hard throwing but erratic, and also possess a knockout curveball. Dellin’s changeup is reportedly better than anything A.J. has ever shown, though. Burnett skipped right over Triple-A (just four career Triple-A starts, and three were rehab starts from 2004-2007), which Betances obviously won’t do. They even have the injury bug in common, though A.J. didn’t start having health problems until he got to the show.
If the Yankees get six years out of Betances like the six Florida got out of Burnett, they should be thrilled. If he manages to stick around for another four years after that and gives them what Burnett gave Toronto for three years and New York for one, then it will have been a minor miracle. Yeah, he will have fallen short of his ceiling in that case (most do), but he would have developed into an above-average starter for ten years. That’s better than most. Anyway, a question like this is begging for a poll, so…
While we all focused on which starting pitcher could join the Yankees at the Winter Meetings, a rumor about a pitcher that could be leaving the team caught us (or at least me) somewhat by surprise. The New York Post reported that the Yankees were shopping A.J. Burnett in Dallas, and that they were willing to eat $8M of the $33M left on his contract to facilitate a trade. Burnett was and probably still is considered untradeable because of his contract and poor performance over the last two years, but that wasn’t going to stop the team from trying to move him.
Today, buried in an article about the Rangers winning the negotiating rights to Yu Darvish, George King says that several teams are “kicking the tires” on acquiring Burnett, but the Yankees will have to eat more than that $8M if they want to get serious about a trade. Joe wrote exactly that earlier this month, suggesting they may need to pay about two-thirds of the remainder of his contract to make a deal happen, a la the Derek Lowe trade. Even then, they’re likely to get little in return, a fringy prospect or maybe a spare bench piece in the best case. Either way, if the Yankees intend to move the righty, they’re basically going to have to give him away.
Burnett has a partial no-trade clause in his contract, one that allows him to submit a list of ten teams he would reject a trade to each year. Clubs like the Padres, Nationals, Tigers, Diamondbacks, and Rockies are reportedly in the market for an arm, so I’m sure at least one of those teams kicking the tires is not on the partial no-trade list. The problem is that the Yankees aren’t exactly in the position to give away pitching away at the moment, and Burnett is still a safe bet to take the ball every five days and give the team innings. They might not be the highest quality innings, but they are innings. Trade him, and the rotation becomes CC Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, and a bunch of kids in the three through nine spots. That can work, but it doesn’t mean it’s ideal.
Of course, there’s always the option of adding an arm while still trading Burnett. We know all the names by now — John Danks, Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Gio Gonzalez, etc. — take your pick and that guy is almost guaranteed to be better than A.J. next season. The cost of acquiring each of those guys is very different, so at the end of the day the Yankees will have to decide between three options…
- Do nothing.
- Eat money to trade Burnett and acquire another pitcher
- Keep Burnett and acquire another pitcher
Number two is probably the most preferable because the team would save some money even if it’s just $6M a year for the next two years, but they would also be out an arm. Again, not the highest quality innings, but still innings. They’ll come in handy when one of the five projected starters inevitably gets hurt, and I say that only because no team makes it through the season with exactly five starters. Ultimately, I still don’t think any team will bite and trade for Burnett, and frankly the report of other teams kicking the tires isn’t all that surprising. Any decent organization would look into all available options, Burnett being one of them.
Ever since the conference call in which Brian Cashman announced his new contract it seemed inevitable that the Yankees would attempt to trade A.J. Burnett. After two horrible seasons, in which he produced the second-highest ERA among all qualified starters*, a move might be in the best interests of both parties. Burnett’s contract poses a significant obstacle, but even if the Yankees eat some money they can save on 2012 and 2013 payrolls, perhaps allowing them to add another starter via trade or free agency. According to The New York Post, they have already started spreading word of Burnett’s availability.
If the Yankees truly want to move Burnett they’ll have to eat a significant portion of his contract. The Braves set something of a precedent earlier this off-season when they ate two-thirds of Derek Lowe‘s remaining salary to facilitate a trade. Yet Lowe has just one year remaining on his contract, which made the situation a bit more palatable. With two years and $33 million remaining on Burnett’s contract, the Yankees would have to eat $22 million to keep pace. Yet according to the Post report they’re only willing to eat $8 million, or just under 25 percent of Burnett’s contract. While that certainly won’t get the job done, it is also just a starting point.
Since the last time we wrote about trading Burnett, the market has changed a bit. A number of mediocre pitchers have received multi-year deals, which might signal a willingness to listen on a pitcher of Burnett’s potential. The Royals signed Bruce Chen for two years and $9 million. The Dodgers double dipped, signing Aaron Harang for two years and $12 million and Chris Capuano for two years and $10 million. While all three pitchers have produced better results than Burnett in the last two years, all three are flawed in their own ways. It stands to reason, then, that another team could have interest in Burnett on similar terms. That would, again, mean the Yankees eating roughly two-thirds of Burnett’s contract.
The matter of compensation remains an open issue. Yes, perhaps some team is willing to pay Burnett $6 million per year for two years. But would they also be willing to give up something in order to obtain Burnett? While that might appear to complicate the equation, in this situation a Derek Lowe type return — low-level minor league pitcher — might suffice. That is, if the Yankees’ likely purpose in shopping Burnett is to trim payroll a bit so they can acquire an upgrade. Their reward in the trade is flexibility, rather than a player. That extra $6 million per season can go towards signing a free agent, especially from next year’s class, or acquiring a slightly higher priced starter.
If the Yankees do indeed trade Burnett, it will likely come after they acquire another starter. Trading him and then failing to acquire a starter would only deplete the depth they have built. Even then, the numerous complications with this deal could render it impossible to complete. The Yankees would have to eat far more than the $8 million they currently propose, and they’d have to accept almost nothing in return. Is that extra $6 million per year worth it to them? Or would they rather just hold onto Burnett and hope for the best? We likely won’t get an answer to that this week, since no acquisitions appear imminent. But we could get some action later this winter if any teams decide that they’d rather trade for Burnett than sign a scrapheap pitcher.
I’m not ready to give up on A.J. Burnett.
I know, it’s stupid. I know the numbers. I know the depressing reality. I am quite sure he is going to be in the rotation next season (at least for the majority of the year), and while in the rotation he will give up a lot of dingers and a lot of walks and make Russell Martin earn whatever he’s paid. He will also make the collective fanbase want to strangle him on multiple occasions. I’m ready for it.
I know the blogosphere is going to roll their collective eyes at this, but I think Burnett could be looking at year where he brings his numbers down again. He’ll probably never live up to that $16.5M that being paid, but the continued starter crunch means that if the guy you’re paying like a starting pitcher can at least put up mediocre innings (and not outright bad ones like Burnett has a tendency to do), that would be pretty nice.
Aside from a misplaced surplus of hope, the real reason I think Burnett can improve is that many of his peripherals did increase last year. He trended upwards in ground balls for the third year in a row, dragged himself back to his normal k/9 rate of around 8, and just managed to keep his walk rate under 4/9ip. In hindsight, he was better than he was in 2010, but that wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to do. There is one number that sticks out to me, though. Maybe, like many players, Burnett was a victim of random, year-long fluctuations that make him seem worse than he actually was. I’m not saying that a little luck is going to turn him a Cy Young winner, just that there’s a possibility of a slightly less depressing year.
That is this: in 2011, 17% of all fly balls A.J. Burnett gave up turned into home runs, which lead major league baseball. That’s absurd, and obviously much higher than the MLB average of 10%. It lead to his 1.47 HR/9 ratio (third-highest in baseball behind Colby Lewis and Bronson Arroyo), and combined with his usual walk rate, had a pretty horrible effect on his numbers. Burnett gave up 109 ER this year, and 49 of them – almost half! – came from the longball. Even with his vastly improved ground ball rate, he gave up the exact same amount of earned runs as he did in 2010, and actually fewer runs if you count the unearned ones. In this trend, his infield fly ball percentage also dropped below his career average this year, which could also be part of the problem.
In 2010, Burnett gave up 215 fly balls and 25 home runs, which is a fairly average 11.6% HR/FB. In 2011, Burnett gave up 185 fly balls and 31 home runs, causing this massive spike. Curiously enough, Burnett has been trending downwards in fly balls for all three years of his Yankees contract, while his homer rate is going up for the past four years, starting back in Toronto in 2008. Some of that massive 17% is coming from depressing A.J. Burnett statistics: dropping fastball velocity, missed location, age-related decline, that sort of depressing junk. Perhaps ballplayers are simply sizing him better. Some of it might come from the fact he spends plenty of time in the homer-happy AL East. But the enormous uptick makes me want to believe that some of it is simply part of year-to-year randomness, and that while A.J. is far from an ace, a few less dingers would go a long way to helping him and the team. Even if we keep his HR/FB rate above average at 14%, that means he gives up five fewer homers, which could do a lot for the man – especially if people were on-base at those particular times.
Like I said, I don’t think that a few less dingers is going to turn A.J. Burnett into an immensely valuable asset. But considering that the Yankees are probably not going to be able to find someone to take Burnett and Brian Cashman insists that the man is going to spend most of the year – if not all of it – in the rotation, it’s these small quirks that we have to try and rely on to improve his performance. In this case, the Yankees could use a little luck when it comes to Burnett, or even just the scales tipping even again.
At this point you’ve no doubt read countless exasperated summaries of A.J. Burnett‘s second straight terrible season in pinstripes, but rather than dwell on how historically bad A.J.’s been, I wanted to dig a bit further into the numbers to see if we might actually be able to glean any positives from his 2011 season and whether we can expect at least a slightly better performance going forward. Especially in light of the fact that if he does stay on the Yankees they’re basically stuck with him for ~65 more starts.
In case you weren’t paying close attention, Burnett actually wasn’t that bad for most of the first half of the season. Following seven innings of two-run ball against the Brewers on June 29, his ERA sat at 4.05 through 17 starts. He only gave up more than three runs in five of those 17 outings, and only failed to complete six innings six times. He did turn in a couple of classic A.J. stinkers — the May 16 game against Tampa Bay (brilliant through five innings before completely unraveling in the sixth) and June 8 game against Boston (just awful from the get-go) — but after his “performance” in 2010, any Yankee fan had to be thrilled with the results through the first three months of the season.
Of course, the wheels came off once the calendar flipped to July. He actually wasn’t terrible in his July 4 start at Cleveland; you may recall he kept the Indians scoreless through six, and took a 2-0 lead into the bottom of the 7th, until a pair of former Yankees — Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns — combined to knock in four runs before A.J. could get out of the inning. If Burnett keeps things at 2-1 in the 7th — the Kearns three-run jack came with two outs — who knows, maybe A.J. doesn’t end throwing to an 8.18 ERA over his next nine outings. There’s no way of knowing, and of course baseball doesn’t work that way, but that Kearns home run wound up being a fairly big turning point in A.J.’s season.
Anyway, over those aforementioned following nine starts, A.J. only managed to pitch into the 6th inning twice, and really was just generally horrendous. Things seemed to come to something of a head on August 20 at Minnesota, as A.J. couldn’t even get through two innings against the league’s worst offense. He followed that up with what was probably his worst outing of the season against the Orioles, and with his next start slated to come at Fenway Park, pretty much every fan in Yankeeville was expecting the absolute worst-case scenario to occur.
Except then something incredibly strange and completely unexpected happened: A.J. Burnett threw a pretty good game. Against the Red Sox. In Boston. Including that September 1 outing, A.J. finished the season throwing to a 4.34 ERA over his final five starts. Still not great, but much, much better than what we’d become accustomed to expect. Anecdotally it seemed like A.J.’s curve had quite a bit more bite to it, and in fact he did rack up quite a few Ks, boasting an 11.2 K/9 on the month.
So given these three chunks of the season — pretty good A.J. (April through June), utterly horrendous A.J. (July and August) and good enough A.J. (September), here’s a look at the breakouts for each of his pitches:
We often think of A.J. as a two-pitch pitcher — and he obviously doesn’t stray too far off of the fastball-curve combo — but he actually does have some secondary stuff, although none of it’s all that great.
It looks like one of the main differences between A.J.’s April-June and July-August was vertical fastball location. During the first three months he averaged 9.36 inches of v-break, but that number fell to 8.51 in July-August. He also went from throwing it 43% of the time to 36%, and basically replaced those fastballs with curves (which rose from 30% to 36%). This was likely problematic as his curve broke 1.5 inches on average closer to the strike zone vertically, which means his curve was that much more hittable. Though he more or less maintained his above-average Whiff%, his Swing%, Foul% and In Play% all went up on the curve.
Once the curve started diving again (from -4.50 to -5.84) over his last five starts, his numbers picked back up, and he posted a ridiculous 24.6% Whiff% with the curve, well above the 11.6% league average. Also worth noting is that he mixed in a sinker nearly 12% of the time during September, and managed to post an impressive 15.8% Whiff% (against 5.4% league average), and he even got a 21.7% Whiff% on his change — which has never been anyone’s idea of a good A.J. Burnett pitch — against a 12.6% league average.
Granted, the September results are comprised of a mere five starts, but I’d rather look at it on the bright side and be encouraged. Maybe A.J. did indeed find something during the season’s last month. You’ll recall that he saved the team’s season in the ALDS, pitching well enough to help the Yanks live to fight another day. Also, if you take out that awful nine-start stretch, A.J. threw to a 4.11 ERA over 135.2 innings. That doesn’t erase his struggles from the ledger, but it perhaps places them in a slightly different light.
I don’t know that the answer to the A.J. conundrum is as simple as “he needs to locate his curveball;” even if that does seem to have a disproportionate effect on his success/failures. I do know that A.J. Burnett has been and can be better than 5.00-plus ERA pitcher — we saw him turn in an above-average season two years ago — and if he’s still a Yankee come the 2012 season, he’ll have to figure out how to escape what’s become an annual rut and turn in a full season of league average pitching, at the very least.
If the Yankees have made one thing clear this off-season, it’s that they will explore every possible avenue in pursuit of rotation upgrades. That’s plural, because they might not be satisfied with just one new pitcher. With options on the free agent, international, and trade markets, they could seek multiple pitchers to complement CC Sabathia. If Freddy Garcia returns as well, it could create a crowded rotation situation. The Yankees could then look to trade one of the lesser pitchers in their rotation.
Phil Hughes could be one of those candidates. After an impressive bullpen run in 2009 and an exciting start to his 2010 season, he has fallen off considerably. While he did improve, to some extent, as the season rolled along, he’s still at the nadir of his value. Could the Yankees even get as much for Hughes as the Giants got for Jonathan Sanchez? The low return makes trading Hughes a difficult proposition. It might still happen if they can find an eager taker, but it’s hard to imagine a team placing significant value on him in a trade.
That leaves A.J. Burnett. Yankees fans aplenty would love to see Burnett walk out the door rather than endure the final two years of his contract. The Yankees do have the ability to trade Burnett, as he can block trades to 10 (unknown to us) clubs. But as with most big-money players, his contract acts as a no-trade clause. The Yankees would have to eat significant money in order to entice another team. But with the possibility of freeing up some money and a rotation spot, might the Yankees be willing to cut their losses on Burnett?
The Yankees still owe Burnett $33 million through 2013. That’s a large chunk of change for a pitcher who ranks among the worst in baseball during the life of his deal. Since 2009, of the 59 qualified pitchers, Burnett ranks 57th in ERA and 55th in FIP. He looks slightly better in xFIP, as his 4.19 mark ranks 45th, but with almost 600 innings under his belt in that span it’s hard to believe that his xFIP has more relevance than his ERA. Even if we remove some level of survivor bias and count any pitcher who qualified in even one of the three included seasons, Burnett ranks 69th out of 73 in ERA and 67th in FIP.
The Braves recently ate a considerable portion of Derek Lowe‘s contract when dealing him, so the Yankees may have a model for a Burnett deal. Lowe ranks 53rd in ERA out of those 59 pitchers with 500 IP since 2009, and was only 0.22 better than Burnett while facing pitchers and pinch-hitters rather than DHs. An equal comparison would have the Yankees eating $22 million of the $33 million remaining to Burnett. Any acquiring team would then get him at two years and $11 million. That still might seem steep for a pitcher of Burnett’s caliber, but it might not that bad a deal considering the market alternatives.
With a relatively weak free agent market, the Yankees could certainly find a team interested in Burnett. He’s not in C.J. Wilson’s class, and he’s definitely a notch below Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, and Roy Oswalt. He’s better, at least in terms of talent, than Jason Marquis, Brad Penny, and Paul Maholm; at the very worst he’s at their level. Since he’s stayed on the mound for the last four years he’s more reliable than guys such as Rich Harden, Chris Young, Erik Bedard, and Joel Pineiro. That could make him an attractive target to a few National League teams.
What could also make Burnett attractive is his controlled cost. At $5.5 million per season a team would know what it’s getting into. Many of these free agents could sign for much more money and perhaps one more year than that. Chien-Ming Wang, who has thrown 62.1 innings in the last two years, got a $4 million guarantee. While that deal itself doesn’t necessarily set the bar, the dearth of free agent pitching could certainly push up prices. If we look to last off-season as a guide, Jake Westbrook got two years at $16.5 million, as did Carl Pavano. Javy Vazquez, coming off an unimaginably bad season, got $7 mil. Those types of deals can happen when there’s not much pitching on the market.
An acquiring team wouldn’t have to part with much to acquire Burnett. Again, if we use the Lowe trade as a model the return could involve an afterthought minor leaguer. But the return isn’t as valuable to the Yankees as the roster flexibility. Moving Burnett means they’d have an extra rotation spot this spring. They could choose to sign a free agent, such as Buehrle, and also trade for a starter. Alternatively, they could do one or the the other and keep rotation spots open for competition among Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren, David Phelps, Manny Banuelos, and Dellin Betances. It also leaves room for a known pitcher on a minor league deal, such as Bartolo Colon or Rich Harden.
Chances are, trading Burnett will prove prohibitive enough as to render it practically impossible. Any pitcher, and particularly an ineffective pitcher, which such a large contract already has an effective no-trade clause. But given the Yankees’ situation, they might deem it worthwhile, given the extra rotation spot and the $6.5 million per season they’d gain from such a deal. This definitely seems like one of those stealth moves that Cashman pulls from out of nowhere.
Thanks to Eric Seidman of FanGraphs and Brotherly Glove for helping me work out this idea.
Brian Cashman held a conference call with reporters this afternoon following the announcement of his new three-year contract, and he downplayed the significance of running a New York team. “It’s an easier situation for me because I haven’t really been anywhere else,” said the Yankees-lifer. “This is all I know.”
The biggest piece of news to come out of the conference call was Andrew Brackman’s release. You win some and you lose
some a lot in the draft, and in Brackman’s case, the Yankees spent nearly $11M (according to Pete Caldera) to have him face 13 big league hitters. Ouch. Cashman also confirmed that the starting rotation will continue to be the team’s priority this offseason (duh), though they could still add a second left-handed reliever as well. Here’s a list of the free agent lefty relievers, in case you’re wondering who might fill Damaso Marte‘s DL spot next season. Here are the rest of the notes from the press conference…
- “We’re in a position now to take our time and explore and digest as well as pursue, but at our own pace, not in an emotional or reactive state,” said Cashman when asked about pursuing pitching. “It allows us to survey the landscape in a more conservative way. [Re-signing CC Sabathia] provides us a lot of security.” (Mark Feinsand, Chad Jennings & Marc Carig)
- “He’s had to deal with adversity because of the inconsistent performance,”said Cashman when asked about A.J. Burnett. “He still was able to step up in October.” Cashman did laud Burnett’s ability to take the ball every five days and be accountable after his starts. Unless something unexpected happens, A.J will be in the rotation next season. (Kim Jones)
- As for Yu Darvish, Cashman simply said: “I think like with anything else you learn over time. I think we’re more prepared today than we have been in the past.” I take that to mean the Yankees did more research on Darvish than they did with Kei Igawa, but that’s a quote open to (mis)interpretation. (Jon Lane)
- Cashman confirmed that Rafael Soriano did not exercise his opt-out clause before last night’s deadline and will be with the team in 2012. (Anthony McCarron)
- When asked about soon-to-be free agents like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, Cashman said: “I don’t anticipate a bat being a need at all. Offense is not a problem with this club despite what happened in the Detroit series.” (Bryan Hoch & Feinsand)
- Picking up Nick Swisher‘s option was “an easy call,” and the GM isn’t concerned too much about his right fielder’s third straight poor postseason showing. (Feinsand)
- As for Jesus Montero‘s role with the team next season, Cashman said: “He could be a catcher, he could be a DH, he could be a bat off the bench, depending on how the roster looks.” (Jones)
- As for the trade market, Cashman said he’s open “to anybody’s ideas” and is willing to discuss a deal involving Burnett or pretty much anyone else on the roster. “If anybody wants to approach me on anybody on this roster, if they don’t have a full no-trade clause, worst I can tell em is no.” Burnett has a partial no-trade clause, but as yesterday’s Derek Lowe trade showed, A.J. has minimal trade value. (Jones, Hoch & Dan Barbarisi)
- Cashman said that a long-term deal for Russell Martin is possible, but he likes the flexibility that their upper level catching depth provides. “He’s under our control [as an arbitration-eligible player]. He was fantastic, he didn’t disappoint … I’m a big fan.” (Kim Jones)
- Cashman on Jorge Posada‘s future: “That’s something we’ll have to discuss here on the short term … it’s not something I’m prepared to talk about today.” (Barbarisi)
- “[Frankie Cervelli] is fine,” said Cashman. “He’s full-bore, ready to go as a catcher.” That’s good news. Frankie suffered his third concussion in four years in early-September. (Jones)
- Cashman also confirmed that no one big league roster needs any kind of offseason surgery. (Jennings)